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A love letter to MUNI from a visually impaired artist

In 2019, we’re thrilled to host a special exhibition of work by Bay Area artist Kurt Schwartzmann at the LightHouse for the Blind Gallery in our headquarters starting on Thursday, January 10. Please join us for the exhibition opening from 4:30 to 6 p.m.

Portrait photo of Kurt Schwartzmann
Kurt Schwartzmann

While most MUNI riders have less than flattering things to say about the Bay Area transport system, for LightHouse client Kurt Schwartzmann it was a refuge when he needed it most.

It was early in 2008, and Kurt was confronting homelessness in San Francisco. He was exhausted, cold and lugging a suitcase full of his belongings from one place to the next. All he wanted was a somewhere to sit down and get warm. While resting at a bus stop, a bus pulled up and he asked to get on: “I don’t have any money but I would love to be able to board your bus,” he said to the driver.

Without hesitating, the driver responded: “I have to drive anyway; you can keep me company.”

A small and everyday gesture from the driver was a pivotal life moment for Kurt, who was deeply affected by the humanness and compassion the driver showed him. It was the first but not the last time that Kurt found safety and a place to sleep on the buses that crisscross the city, from drivers who would accept whatever payment he could manage without humiliation or scorn.

“When I had nothing, MUNI offered me a ride and shelter,” he says. “This a great way to say thank you to MUNI. The compassion of that driver. I’d love to be able to find that driver and thank them.”

It’s a uniquely San Francisco tale — but it just barely scratches the surface of Kurt’s storied life in the city he loves so dearly.

Kurt, who grew up in Fresno, California, moved to San Francisco seeking the freedom to be himself as a gay man. He has been drawing since he was in kindergarten, but it wasn’t until after he went blind in his left eye that he took up art in earnest and discovered the unique composition that characterizes his series “Yellow Line”.

Kurt lost the vision in his left eye in 2006, due to a complication with AIDS. His doorbell rang and he suddenly realized that he could not see anything through the peephole. Unknown to him and his doctors, Cytomegalovirus (CMV) retinitis had attacked his left eye from behind and his vision diminished slowly and painlessly. As he describes it, his field of vision is a long thin stripe, which allows him to narrow in on his composition while drawing.

Kurt got back on his feet and sought Counseling Services at the LightHouse in 2015 in hopes of dealing with some of the frustration and anger he experienced as a result of his vision change. Working with a Clinical Psychologist at LightHouse has helped him reframe his thinking and language around his vision.

“The LightHouse has been an integral part of helping me accepting and understanding my vision,” says Kurt. “Before doing counseling with her, I would just get so frustrated. Now I have the language to talk about it with people instead of getting defensive when people make comments about my eyepatch or call me a ‘pirate’.”

Just as the white cane is a useful symbol to communicate blindness to the outside world, Kurt wears an eye patch to indicate that he can’t see in his left eye — just in case he bumps into someone on the street or doesn’t see them waving. 

Kurt is now happily married and living in Golden Gate Heights with his husband Bruce and their dog Louie. Bruce encouraged Kurt to pursue his lifelong love of making art — and to start by designing their wedding invitations. It was a fitting proposal, and led Kurt to City College of San Francisco where he took his first printmaking class in 2015. His art evolved, and as a frequenter of MUNI, he devised his “Yellow Line” series to honor the drivers.

In this series of 64 drawings, Kurt works with pen and ink, watercolor, acrylic pen, on cold press watercolor paper. His drawings are 3.5 inches by 16.5 inches. He describes his choice of drawing proportion as a “slice of life,” as he sees it. When he worked on the pieces in 2015, he would sit at the front of the bus, catty-corner to the driver’s seat. His favorite buses to frequent were the 6 and the 43. With his monocular vision, he could block out the entire world on the left side, focus in on the driver in vivid detail.

Kurt’s love affair with San Francisco doesn’t stop at MUNI — he also has a series of drawings of the Transamerica Pyramid. Check out more of his work on his website.

Oral History: Gil Johnson reflects on eight decades of blindness training, advocacy and community

A distinguished longtime board member and pioneer of rehabilitation services at the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco, there are few denizens of our community more respected and knowledgeable than Gil Johnson. Growing up as a confident, free-thinking young blind man and coming to the LightHouse during a pivotal moment for blindness in the late seventies, Johnson changed the course of our training services and defined the future of the then somewhat fractured LightHouse organization.

In honor of Johnson’s 80th birthday, LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin set out to record an oral history: to capture the nuances of Johnson’s early life, career, and ongoing journey after LightHouse. The result is nearly six hours of humorous, thoughtful reflections on the past, present and future of what it means to be or become blind.

The podcast series was recorded on three separate days and is broken into seven total parts below. Mp3s are available for download or to stream directly.

Part 1 (recorded November 2017, 2 segments): Gil talks about his childhood, development as a young blind man and the early career moves that brought him to the blindness field.

Part 2 (recorded December 2017, 3 segments): Gil discusses the state of LightHouse when he arrived in the late 70s, and goes in depth into the challenges and opportunities as he took on the task of innovating in rehabilitative training through the 1980s.

Part 3 (recorded August 2018): Gil discusses his transition away from LightHouse, taking on services for the blind in Illinois and the new era for the LightHouse and its community as the 1990s approached.

 

Photos: LightHouse’s first-ever ‘Celebration of Blind Ambition’ in San Francisco

Last Thursday, the LightHouse gathered hundreds of friends, supporters and community members at the Julia Morgan Ballroom in downtown San Francisco for the LightHouse Gala: A Celebration of Blind Ambition. At the gala, which was LightHouse’s largest-ever, we honored blind pioneers, role models and citizens for their audacity and ambition. It was a celebration, a fundraiser and an invitation for our community to partner and become more deeply engaged with the work of the LightHouse.

With over 300 people in attendance, it was an evening of community and camaraderie. Emcee Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to summit Mount Everest, set the tone for our daring evening. LightHouse student Jorge Ellington and his band started the evening right with live Latin Jazz. We honored seven blind leaders throughout the night, and capped off with presentations from our agency’s Holman Prize for Blind Ambition.

We were proud to present our new LightHouse Awards: to acknowledge longtime leaders from the field of blindness, who have had a great impact on the community. This award honored trailblazers in education, technology and policy. LightHouse Newel Perry Award was presented to Cathy Skivers by Bryan Bashin. The LightHouse Dr. Isabelle Grant Award was presented to George Kerscher for his work to made electronic books accessible. Erin Lauridsen, Director of Access Technology presented the award to Dr. Kerscher. The LightHouse Chris Buckley Award honored Scott LaBarre and Maryanne Diamond for their work advocating for the Marrakesh Treaty to make books accessible to the global blind community without exception. Benentech’s Jim Fruchterman presented the award.

Ceremonial medals were given to the 2017 Holman Prizewinners, who were honored for the completion of their year-long projects which furthered the cause of blindness across six continents in the fields of adventure sports, entrepreneurship and cultural exchange. Holman prizewinner Penny Melville-Brown recounted her perilous, near death car accident and subsequently meeting and marrying the love of her life. Ojok Simon spoke of teaching over 45 blind people the art of beekeeping this year, and brought honey from Uganda to share with all. Ahmet Ustunel imparted his kayaking adventures in Turkey, and the technology he crafted to aid blind kayakers navigate independently.

Julie Cabrera, and Enchanted Hills camper who grew up to be a counselor helped us raise funds to rebuild the Wing Creek Chapel and accessible nature trail at Enchanted Hills, which were destroyed in last year’s Wine Country wildfires. The evening supported the life-changing programs of the LightHouse with a portion supporting to Enchanted Hills Camp for the Blind. The event raised over $180,000. Thank you to our sponsors.

EXPLORATION SPONSORS – Individual

  • Jennifer and Ken Bunt

Corporate

  • Walt Disney Company Employee Matching Gift Program
  • Microsoft

AUDACITY SPONSORS – Individual

  • Drew Kebbel
  • Sharon and Richard Sacks

Corporate

  • Apple
  • Facebook
  • Herbst Foundation
  • Merchant’s Exchange (Julia Morgan Ballroom)
  • Patson & Co
  • Swinerton
  • U.S. Bank

ADVENTURE SPONSORS – Individual

  • Jennison Asuncion
  • Lisa Carvalho and David Mager
  • Gena Harper
  • Jerry Kuns
  • Josh Miele, Liz Ruhland and Fred Ruhland
  • Fred and Kristine Silva

Corporate

  • One Market Restaurant, Michael and Leslye Dellar
  • Google/ Laura Allen
  • HP
  • Humanware
  • Maze & Associates
  • Mutual of America
  • U.S. Bank

OPPORTUNITY SPONSORS – Individuals

  • Barbara Lassen
  • Joan Dove
  • Chris Downey and Rosa Downey
  • Eric and Jacalyn Mah
  • Michael Nuz
  • Alice Wingwall and Donlyn Lyndon
  • Stanley Yarnell and Victor Rowley

Corporate

  • Bauke Family Foundation
  • Disability Rights Advocates
  • Fitness SF
  • Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP
  • Turner Construction

Seven Blind Leaders Honored in First-ever LightHouse Awards Ceremony

On Thursday, November 29, hundreds gathered at the Julia Morgan Ballroom in downtown San Francisco for the LightHouse Gala: A Celebration of Blind Ambition. The event, which was the 116-year old LightHouse’s first independent gala celebration, honored blind role models and boundary-pushers of all kinds, not just for high-achievements but for their level of audacity and ambition.

Capped off by presentations from the three winners of the agency’s Holman Prize for Blind Ambition, the event also featured the new LightHouse awards ceremony to acknowledge longtime leaders from the field of blindness who have had a great impact on the community. The full list of award recipients is below.

“We’re thrilled to bring the community together for an event in our home of San Francisco,” said LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin on the occasion. “To see the spirit and ambition of our Holman Prizewinners alongside the legacies of our LightHouse Award recipients – I am honored and humbled to host them all in one place. But more than just talent and ambition, our gala is meant to celebrate education and advocacy; the noble, never-ending hard work that is required to bring up future generations of blind people so that they may find independence, employment and joy in their daily lives.”

Scott LaBarre, a blind attorney from Colorado who accepted an award for his work to ensure the recent ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty, gave a rousing speech. Maryanne Diamond, former president of the World Blind Union, accepted her award from Australia. The 71-country treaty, which allows for accessible book formats to be available around the world, had its toughest time in the most developed countries, namely with the United States Senate who ratified the treaty in October.

George Kerscher, who accepted an award for his creation of the accessible ebook format known as DAISY, echoed LaBarre’s emphasis on education, praising publishers who are now producing ebooks that are “born accessible” for blind readers.

Catherine Skivers, former president of the California Council of the Blind, was also honored for her enduring work in the blindness field, which spans several decades.

LightHouse Awards

Christopher Buckley Award for audacious action through political advocacy which improves the lives of blind people: Scott LaBarre and Maryanne Diamond

Scott LaBarre and Maryanne Diamond, for their work to ensure the ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty which will allow for the spread of education and literature to blind readers around the world.

Dr. Isabelle Grant Award for individual initiatives which benefit the blind worldwide: George Kerscher

George Kerscher, inventor of DAISY, the groundbreaking technology that created a new standard format for accessible books. Adopted around the world and by nations as an official delivery format, Kerscher has not only been an innovator but a fierce advocate for blind learners everywhere.

Dr. Newel Perry Award for enduring and effective leadership in the blindness community: Catherine Skivers

Catherine Skivers’ enduring commitment to the furtherance of the blindness community is rooted in California, but felt throughout the world. Holding many leadership roles through her career including president of the California Council of the Blind, Skivers has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to equity, dignity and authenticity for blind people everywhere.

Ceremonial medals were also given to the 2017 Holman Prizewinners, who were honored for the completion of their year-long projects which furthered the cause of blindness across six continents in the fields of adventure sports, entrepreneurship and cultural exchange.

Holman Prizewinners:

Ahmet Ustunel – blind adventurer and technology enthusiast

Ojok Simon – blind beekeeper and rehabilitative educator

Penny Melville-Brown – blind chef and cultural ambassador

About the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Founded in 1902, San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired promotes the independence, equality and self-reliance of people who are blind or have low vision. LightHouse offers blindness skills training and relevant services such as access to employment, education, government, information, recreation, transportation and the environment. LightHouse also pursues the development of new technology, encourages innovation, and amplifies the voices of blind individuals around the world. To receive services, volunteer or make a donation, visit lighthouse-sf.org.

For more info: press@lighthouse-sf.org

LightHouse will take over as distributor of Sendero Map and GPS products

The LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco is proud to announce its takeover as the manager and distributor of Sendero Group-manufactured GPS products. The LightHouse will run Sendero Maps and Sendero’s GPS product, which will continue to function normally.

Sendero’s PC Maps and GPS serve the blind and visually impaired community by providing detailed information to explore rural roads or city streets, intersection-by-intersection. The software allows users to record personal points of interest, hear their direction of travel, track distance travelled and collaborate with teachers, friends or family using integrated visual maps.

Sendero has been the frontrunner in accessible GPS technology since Founder Mike May and Chief Technology Officer Charles LaPierre launched the first accessible digital GPS map in 1995 at Arkenstone, their former travel technology company. That product turned into the forward-thinking, personal computer-based Sendero Maps and GPS, which the San Francisco LightHouse will now manage, in conjunction with its Tactile Maps Automated Production (TMAP).

This partnership will yield exciting new technological developments and retain Sendero’s existing products and functionalities. The Sendero mobile apps are slated for new features, and the Sendero Maps software will remain the same. LightHouse will also host the legacy BrailleNote and Braille Sense software, which were formerly available through Sendero.

To complement the PC-based products hosted by LightHouse, Sendero also announced that it is turning over its mobile navigation products to the subscription-based sighted assistance company Aira, who is acquiring Sendero’s iOS products for integration in their service.

Sendero’s GPS products will complement TMAP’s progressive approach to on-demand maps with their easy-to-use technology. There is no better way to learn a neighborhood than to pair the detail of digital maps with the spatial, geographic overview of a tactile map.

Sendero CTO, Charles LaPierre says, “I am thrilled that Sendero Maps and GPS products will continue under the stewardship of Aira and the LightHouse. In 1993, when I developed the first accessible GPS backpack prototype weighing 10 pounds, I said ‘In 10 years it will be the size of a Sony Walkman (TM), which will fit in your hand’. I am honored that my university project 25 years ago evolved into the ‘Swiss Army knife of life’ smartphone version of today.”

Under LightHouse superintendence in San Francisco, we hope to see Sendero products and services expand to serve more blind and visually impaired people worldwide — particularly with the highly anticipated launch of our online Adaptations Store later this year.

From yacht-rock to pop-ballads: Our first Audio Academy broke new ground

On Sunday afternoon, the halls of LightHouse reverberated with the deep, breezy sounds of yacht rock. “Sailing takes me away to where I’ve always heard it could be,” crooned DJ Dan’s tune “Sailing” by Christopher Cross. A San Francisco State student with an interest in all things aquatic, Dan’s final performance on Sunday transported the audience to a tranquil expanse and back again, reflecting Dan’s personality with quirky, upbeat folk and country tunes perfectly suited for the sailing life.

Each student entered the weekend with no knowledge of DJing, and left equipped with sufficient knowledge to assemble a twenty minute set. Our blind instructors Byron Harden and Clarence Griffin from Chicago-based I See Music introduced students to the software Deejay Pro and taught them the basics of a fully accessible and non-visual DJ method. Their program, designed by blind people for blind people, is the only in the nation that offers a comprehensive audio education curriculum for blind and low vision learners.

The workshop participants performed sets that were each as unique in tone and style as the students themselves. We heard an uplifting, pop-centric set by Maycie, a thumping, rhythmic set from Jenna and hip hop and R&B tunes from Juan. Traveling from all around Northern California, the students came from as far as Sonora and Sacramento, taking full advantage of the LightHouse’s cozy residential facilities for the 3-day workshop.

Audio Academy student Maycie sits grinning in front of her DJ equipment in the LightHouse board room.
Audio Academy student Maycie sits grinning in front of her DJ equipment in the LightHouse board room.

Maycie, 20, was thrilled to find out about Audio Academy because it marked a departure from many other inaccessible or antiquated audio workshops. She had researched a variety of music schools, but none could provide appropriate accommodations. As a vocalist, producer of her own songs and aspiring DJ, Maycie sought an educational avenue for audio skills.

“Blind people kind of get stereotyped a lot as musicians,” she says. “Not every blind person is musical, but for those of us that are, there need to be more opportunities.”

She says that the workshop provided a comprehensive basic understanding of the DJ software, DJ methodology and tools, adding that the workshop solidified her interest in DJing professionally.

“It was a pretty amazing feeling, to be honest: I had this picture in my head of actually performing a DJ set, and no one would have to help me — I could do it fully by myself.”

Audio Academy student Jenna smiles, seated, with one hand on her laptop and the other on her DJ equipment.
Audio Academy student Jenna smiles, seated, with one hand on her laptop and the other on her DJ equipment.

Jenna, 21, says that although she wasn’t certain what to expect for the weekend, she was glad to have participated and introduced herself to a set of skills to enhance both her recreational and vocational interests.

“This has opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for me with my pursuit of a career in music and I’m excited to attend more Audio Academy Workshops in the future,” she says.

Juan, 23, says that the workshop was fulfilling as an opportunity to learn new skills in a new environment, and add another skill to his musical toolbox of piano, guitar and percussion instruments. Over the weekend, he learned to mix and edit a set of songs using DJay Pro in conjunction with accessible technology, including VoiceOver.

Audio Academy students, instructor Clarence and LightHouse Board member Josh Miele assemble in the Board Room around DJ equipment to listen to music.
Audio Academy students, instructor Clarence and LightHouse Board member Josh Miele assemble in the Board Room around DJ equipment to listen to music.

“I like to listen to music, so DJing seems like a possibility, and I felt like the teachers were putting good emphasis in the stuff they taught us,” he says. “I want to buy the DJ equipment and start practicing at home. And, I want to actually do what the instructors do. They get gigs and stuff like that, and I want to actually DJ professionally.”

Byron and Clarence collectively have a wealth of knowledge and experience in audio production, DJing and music. Byron created I See Music to foster independence, equality and opportunity through their instruction and example of professional success.

Daniel, 22, says that having blind instructors was a defining part of the workshop. He was pleased that their knowledge of both the DJ and accessibility softwares rendered the workflow relatively seamless.

At left, Blind DJ Ryan Dour performs a set using an iPad and DJ equipment, while Audio Academy student Daniel listens with delight at right.
At left, Blind DJ Ryan Dour performs a set using an iPad and DJ equipment, while Audio Academy student Daniel listens with delight at right.

“I felt the program was really good. I really learned a lot, and I think that it was a good opportunity for people,” he says. “You could get hands-on experience there with somebody that really knew the software. I might use the knowledge as a radio DJ, or might just do some DJing on the side just for fun.”

How to Carve a Pumpkin Non-Visually

Happy Halloween! We’re bringing you tips on how to carve a pumpkin non-visually written by our Independent Living Skills Specialist, Bobbi Pompey. We’re also featuring photos from our pumpkin carving workshop earlier this month.

A young girl looks down at a pumpkin, secures the pumpkin with one hand and cuts into the pumpkin with her other hand.
A young girl looks down at a pumpkin, secures the pumpkin with one hand and cuts into the pumpkin with her other hand.
  • Begin with the End in Mind!: Have a plan for how you want your finished pumpkin to look. Will it be happy? Scary? Round? Misshapen? All of this will affect which pumpkin you purchase, and how it will be designed.
  • Mise en Place: This French cooking phrase refers to having everything you need out and organized before beginning to work. For this project, you will need a serrated knife, a spoon/scoop, one or two bowls, tape/glue, materials to layout a template and any finishing touches.
  • Stay Safe: When carving the pumpkin, please remember to practice your knife safety skills! This includes using a sharp knife, cutting with the blade away from you, and putting the knife in a designated location when not in use.
  • What works for you?: The key to creating your design is making a tactual template that you can then cut around. This template can be made from a variety of of materials, you must decide what is best for you. You may want to use; masking/painting tape, pipe cleaners, wiki sticks, yarn, or paper folded in the desired shapes.
A hand sits atop a pumpkin with blue masking tape around the top circumference.
A hand sits atop a pumpkin with blue masking tape around the top circumference.

Let’s dive in, and carve that pumpkin! Steps are below:

  1. Design your pumpkin. Tape or glue down your design materials in order to create a template for your design.
  2. Cut a circle around the stem in order to form a lid. Cut with the knife at an angle, away from the stem, so that the lid will rest on the top instead of fall down into the pumpkin.
  3. Scoop out the inside. Use your hands and a spoon or scoop in order to scrape out the guts and seeds of the pumpkin. Separate the seeds if desired for later use.
  4. To toast the seeds: toss them in oil or melted butter, add salt and seasonings if desired. Spread them evenly on a baking sheet, and cook in a 300 degree preheated oven for approximately 45 minutes.
  5. Decorate and display! You can place a battery operated tea light candle in your pumpkin to add light to your design, cover the openings with colored tissue paper to give your pumpkin a festive glow, or surround it with pumpkins of other sizes, a candy bowl, pine combs or greenery as finishing touches.
Gail “Sunshine” in front of her cabin at EHC, with a new cane and carved pumpkin for her grandson.
Gail “Sunshine” in front of her cabin at EHC, with a new cane and carved pumpkin for her grandson.
  • Recognize Your Skills: Once your pumpkin is complete, take a moment to recognize all the skills you used in order to make it happen and think about how you can transfer them to other areas of your life. It is likely that you used; knife skills, knife safety, tactual awareness, shopping skills (traveling to the store, money management, personal grooming, clothing management, etc.), organization, problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and more! 
an array of carved pumpkins glow in the dark.
An array of carved pumpkins glow in the dark.

If you would like instruction in carving a pumpkin or any other independent living skills, feel free to contact Bobbi Pompey, ILS Specialist, at bpompey@lighthouse-sf.org or (415) 694-7613. Independent Living Skills include: cooking, labeling/organization, clothing management, personal grooming, make-up application, cleaning, accessing print, low vision devices and other everyday skills.

Baking Blind: How Penny Melville-Brown changed perceptions about disability by cooking across six continents

Belgian-born chef and entrepreneur Noam Kostucki summed up 2017 Holman Prizewinner Penny Melville-Brown like this: “She’s bonkers. She’s completely mad.” This from a man running a restaurant in the middle of the Costa Rican jungle — but he meant it as a compliment. And for those who know Penny, it’s pretty much spot on.

Penny has big ideas and the gumption to carry them out — there’s no stopping her once she puts her mind to something. The woman has fortitude, military-learned logistics skills and an uncanny ability to connect with everyone she meets and put them immediately at ease.

From the onset, Penny’s Holman prizewinning project looked to be the one with least risk involved (compared to tending killer bees and solo-kayaking a highly trafficked shipping channel). Her plan was to leave her home in the green, port-side town of Fareham, UK and travel to six continents over the course of one year. Along the way she stopped in Costa Rica, Malawi, Australia, China and the United States, and met with chefs, other blind people and community leaders all over the world. She traveled with her nephew Toby Melville-Brown who documented her whirlwind world tour in a video blog series, Baking Blind.

“Some people were tentative and quite cagey before I showed up,” she says. “As soon as we were cooking together, they forgot I was blind. Then it was just two people sharing an experience together. Usually they had something simple in mind that they wanted to cook and I bullied them into doing something much more interesting.”

The risks of cooking seemed minimal to an experienced baker like herself— a burned wrist here, a nicked finger there — and yet somehow Penny’s project was the one with the most sturm und drang. Penny’s tour was met with much more intrigue than she had planned— coming face-to-face with Tropical Storm Nate in Costa Rica, a visa-related marooning in China, an air-sea rescue in Australia, to name a few. But Penny took it all in stride, and embraced the uncertainties as an unavoidable and rich part of her journey.

“As I crisscrossed continents and connected with people in vastly different cultures, I became even more convinced that something like this needed to be done,” she says. “There is very little media coverage of a blind person interacting with the rest of the world as an equal —  an ordinary person, who is really keen on something, operating as an equal with others around the world.”

Penny has a special connection with the namesake of the Holman Prize, James Holman, a 19th Century world traveler known as the first blind man to circumnavigate the globe. Both became blind while serving in the British Royal Navy (albeit nearly 200 years apart). Penny served for 22 years in the Women’s Royal Naval Service and Royal Navy, reaching the rank of commander. She was also the first woman to hold the position of naval barrister. After being medically discharged from the Royal Navy in 1999, she created her business Disability Dynamics to help other people with disabilities find employment.

“The majority of disabled people acquire their disabilities during their working lives, as they’re growing up or while they’re working,” she says. “If you’ve build yourself the strength of character motivation, optimism, determination, those skills will take you through life’s challenges of any sort, like acquiring a disability or getting a job.”

So much of Penny’s work focuses not only on changing the minds of people with disabilities themselves, but changing widespread public perceptions about disability. And when asked to identify the highlights of her Baking Blind tour, it’s the small human connections that Penny pinpoints — the ones that ripple out into the collective psyche to help evolve peoples’ understanding of what it means to be disabled.

Her favorite moment was cooking with two 20-year-old women in China, who didn’t even know how to hold a knife — and how quickly they formed a bond and began helping each other, growing more confident with each passing moment. Or wending her way through the bush and scrubland of Kiama, Australia with an Aboriginal chef as a guide to show them which plants were edible. Or even cooking deep in the jungle of Costa Rica with Chef Noam during a tropical storm and being forced to improvise due to the ironic lack of running water.

But the end of Penny’s journey around the world didn’t turn out quite as she had expected. During a visit to France just before Christmas to explore new cooking opportunities, Penny almost died in a serious car accident where she fractured several vertebrae in her neck and broke multiple ribs and her sternum. She spent two months in intensive care and was put into an induced coma for five weeks.

Penny says, “The breathing tubes stopped me talking so communicating with the French medical team was a challenge for all of us and even more complicated by my blindness. When you’re blind and in intensive care, and trying to communicate in a foreign language, it’s not easy. I had a whole vocabulary of sound effects that I used to communicate with the nurses.”

It was an incredibly trying time for Penny and her loved ones, but Penny fought hard — facing her rehabilitation head-on, and recovering much faster than her doctors anticipated.

“When you’ve already overcome significant life challenges, you’re an old hand at it,” she says.

And though Penny still has some recovery to do, she’s hard at work producing Baking Blind videos that she and Toby shot while traveling all over the world for the Holman Prize. She’s also working on a cookbook using recipes and ideas from her world travels.

The strange lesson in all of Penny’s adventures is that the most serious mishap occurred not while she was stuck in muddy, pockmarked roads during a downpour in Costa Rica, or eating unfamiliar foods in the villages in Malawi — but while she was driving in a taxi in a major European metropolis. It goes to show that risk is unavoidable, and Penny would tell you there’s no use holding back from the things you want to seek out in the world.

“Life is all about taking risks,” says Penny. “And we survive to tell the tale.”

In little more than a month, Penny will again return to San Francisco to regale attendees at the LightHouse Gala about her accomplishments and discoveries during her year-long adventure funded by the Lighthouse’s Holman Prize.

About the Holman Prize

In 2017, San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind launched the Holman Prize to support the emerging adventurousness and can-do spirit of blind and low vision people worldwide. This endeavor celebrates people who want to shape their own future instead of having it laid out for them. In early July, we announced the 2018 Holman Prizewinners — congratulations to Stacy CervenkaConchita Hernández and Red Szell. Ojok and his fellow 2017 prizewinners will visit San Francisco in November 2017 to speak at the LightHouse Gala.

“We are thrilled to be able to continue the Holman Prize for a second year,” says LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin. “These three new prizewinners represent a wide range of ambitions and life experience: from tackling social obstacles to huge tests of physical and mental fortitude, they reflect the diversity and capability of blind people everywhere.”

Created specifically for legally blind individuals with a penchant for exploration of all types, the Holman Prize provides financial backing – up to $25,000 – for three individuals to explore the world and push their limits. Learn more at holmanprize.org.

Behind the Map: Starting over in a new city

In January, LightHouse started offering TMAP — on-demand tactile street maps — for order at our Adaptations Store (1-888-400-8933). We have been hearing some amazing stories about how our maps are being used, so we wanted to share them with our mapping community.

One month ago, Lia Jacobsen sat on a plane, nervous. She was moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan after living in Washington D.C. for 10 years. The prospect of learning a new city after all that time was, admittedly, a bit daunting.

On the tray table in front of her lay two TMAPs: one detailing the area around her new home in Ann Arbor, and another of the streets around the University of Michigan School of Social Work, where she was beginning a masters degree. Leah traced her hands along the raised lines of the map, determined to memorize the criss-crossing, partial grid system of her new town. She reviewed the braille street names using each map key, learning the quarter-mile radius map first, then working her way out to the more dense and complex 1.5-miles radius map.

The flight attendant paused at Lia’s row, and politely asked: “Excuse me, ma’am, would you like me to turn your light on?” The question struck Lia as a bit absurd. Why would a person need light to read a raised-line tactile map? She tried to be polite but some snark crept into her voice as she expressed her confusion. It wasn’t until this moment that she discovered that the maps were more than just embossed paper: the streets were printed in ink, as well.

A TMAP of the University of Michigan.
Image: A TMAP of the University of Michigan.

The humor of the situation helped dispel some of her nerves, and since arriving in Ann Arbor and completing several weeks of classes, Lia pretty much knows the lay of the land.  

“My TMAPs were hugely helpful because when I landed I already felt like I knew where I was,” she says. “It automatically made me feel much more comfortable because I knew what I was passing.”

On her first day on campus she caught a group of lost undergrads off-guard when she interjected and gave them directions to their building.  

“It’s about being more equal and having the freedom not to rely on other people,” she says. “I tend to explore no matter what, but it gives me a foundation and a starting point so I don’t feel totally lost. Feeling lost makes you just want to go home.”

Lia wishes she had had access to TMAP throughout her many years working on the Obama campaign, traveling far and wide as a member of the Peace Corps, traveling alone in Colombia, or as a kid growing up in Florida.  

“I never had tactile maps growing up,” she says. “My first time having a sort of tactile map, my O&M teacher took a piece of felt and put some velcro beads on it and made a makeshift map.”

She expects to use TMAPs much more as she pursues her masters in social work and hopefully heads back to D.C. to become a victim advocate for the FBI.

“I definitely plan on purchasing more TMAPs whenever I move next time and have been spreading the word about how much I love the TMAPs to all of my friends who are blind,” she says. “The task of learning a new community after being in the same place for a decade was daunting, and the maps I purchased were enormously helpful in my feeling oriented from day one.”

Get your TMAP today

To order a map, call our product specialists at 1-888-400-8933 and specify the street address of the map you’re interested in receiving. Within two business days we’ll ship you your map, or make it available for pick up at the Adaptations Store (1155 Market St., 10th Floor, San Francisco, CA).

What’s in the package?

  • You will receive 3 map versions printed at simple, moderate and dense map scale ratios
  • A tactile map key
  • An introductory page
  • All materials are printed on 11” X 11.5” sheets of embossed paper and include ink / large print labels in addition to braille

Learn more about the MAD Lab where these maps are produced.

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Focus on your health this fall: participate in the National Fitness Challenge

The San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind & Visually Impaired is proud to be one of three California partners with the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) and the Anthem Foundation for the National Fitness Challenge in 2018.

The goal of the National Fitness Challenge is to raise the physical activity levels of each participant to the level recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This includes 10,000 steps and 30 active minutes per day.

The campaign provides participants with Fitbits to track their steps and fitness activity between October and May.

In addition to helping participants find creative ways to increase their daily steps by matching them with fitness partners and offering discounted gym memberships, the LightHouse supports participants throughout the course of the campaign with a wide variety of fitness and wellness programming and services.

Join us in the coming months for a variety of activities, from hiking to yoga and beyond! To foster overall wellbeing, we also have non-fitness oriented programs in lifestyle skills like cooking and technology.

At the LightHouse, you can:

Blindness is not the barrier many think it is to achieving your fitness goals and enjoying greater well-being — and the LightHouse is here to help get into the rhythm.  It’s not too late to join the NFC if you already have a Fitbit — we welcome new participants to join throughout the campaign.

For more information on the National Fitness Challenge, For more information, contact Amber Sherrard at asherrard@lighthouse-sf.org.